Opinion | Why SAT Test Prep Doesn’t Help Who You Might Think It Helps

In May of this year, the University of California Board of Regents, which makes decisions for a system that educates 280,000 students across 10 campuses, announced it would end the use of the SAT and ACT in the U.C. admissions process, effective immediately. This was a departure from a year before, when the regents, who had suspended the use of the test for Covid pandemic reasons, revealed a plan to phase out the tests over the next five years. But then a lawsuit got settled that forced the U.C. system to speed up the timeline and make the change permanent, with vague plans to begin using a customized test by 2025. (Those plans have been put on hold.) The initial, slower timeline should not be seen as a sign of reticence on the board’s part, however; when it voted in 2020 on whether to phase out the tests, the vote was 23-0.

The U.C. schools weren’t the only ones to do away with the SAT and ACT in the past few years. Two-thirds of U.S. colleges and universities went test-optional or test-blind during the pandemic, which accelerated a trend over the past decade that has seen schools, from Ivy League universities to commuter colleges, drop the two tests, which defined so much of academic life of the past 50 or so years. In an article in The Times last year, the chairman of the U.C. Board of Regents said, “I have talked to leaders at other public universities over the last couple of months and would not be surprised if others looked at this question as well.” If this trend continues, the majority of four-year universities in the country will permanently go test-optional.

Almost across the board, the stated reason for getting rid of SAT and ACT requirements is to increase diversity on campus. Diversity, or at least the quest for it, has become a selling point — it’s why every brochure and pamphlet looks like one of those old United Colors of Benetton ads — and since it has increasingly become conventional wisdom that the SAT is a racist test that fills the dorms with white and Asian kids, the elite schools can drop it, tout themselves as progressive institutions that consider the whole of the student rather than something as sterile as a standardized test score and still have their pick of thousands of qualified applicants.

In the first edition of my new newsletter, I wrote about something I called “binary consensus building,” which I defined as “forced acquiescence to whatever proposal gets the most traction.” If you agree with a statement like “diversity on campus is important, and schools should do everything in their power to ensure that students from all backgrounds have access to the best schools,” the process of binary consensus building says you must then support the elimination of the SAT and ACT. This process constricts the range of political possibilities and, perhaps more important, allows powerful institutions to simply plow through good-faith opposition by flying the flag of diversity.

Over the course of the next two newsletters, I will be arguing that the relationship between the use of standardized tests in college admissions and diversity on campus is far from clear. This discussion will touch on a lot of history, provide a great deal of contextualizing and take a closer look at the U.C. system’s application and enrollment numbers. My intention here is not to defend the SAT and ACT — the SAT’s origins in eugenic research are indefensible, and the test has probably been freighted with so much baggage at this point that it might be time to put it to bed — but rather to think about the use of diversity as a justification for wide-ranging decisions that affect hundreds of thousands of students.

This will require me to poke at a few widely held misconceptions. First up: test prep.

One pillar of the case against standardized testing is the widespread belief that wealthy students carry an advantage because they can afford expensive test prep courses and tutors. That’s what critics mostly mean when they say the SAT is a test of family wealth, not of academic ability.

Is this true?

Let’s start with some findings that pretty much everyone who studies this stuff seems to agree on. First: It’s true that test prep, which I’ll define as outside help that costs money and requires an investment of time, is generally used by wealthier and better-connected students. But second: The effects of test prep have been studied pretty extensively, and while there’s far from any consensus on why some students do better than others, the published studies agree that the range of improvement, once controlled for a variety of factors like the fact that students who enroll in and complete test prep courses will likely be a self-selected group, is about 10 to 35 points.

Does test prep really help everyone who has the money to sign up for a course, even if it raises their scores just a little? Not quite. Two studies found that when you disaggregate for ethnicity, Americans of East Asian descent benefit far more from test prep than any other group, including white and other Asian American students. (There’s an interesting if somewhat unrelated distinction to make here: One-on-one tutoring seems to help nobody. Commercial test prep, which ranges from cram schools in East Asian enclaves to the Princeton Review, has some effects.) This might explain why Asian Americans’ SAT scores have steadily been rising over the past decade.

According to a study conducted by Julie Park and Ann Becks in The Review of Higher Education, “East Asian Americans were the only group where a form of test prep predicted a higher SAT score (about 50 points).” For everyone else, SAT prep has no significant effect or even, in some cases, a negative one. A previous study found that the majority of this improvement took place in East Asian immigrant enclaves like Flushing, in Queens, which has dozens of cram schools that serve ethnic communities.

There’s another odd bit of information in these studies: Korean students benefit from test prep in a way that falls outside the usual socioeconomic logic. Poor Korean students are more likely than wealthy Chinese students to enroll in private test prep and to stay in these programs for longer periods. (This might be an Old World carryover: Private, for-profit schools, called hagwons, are ubiquitous in South Korea and span a wide range of topics — math, science, art, dance and even e-sports. They are certainly not relegated to the upper classes. Middle-class and poor Koreans send their children to hagwons both in South Korea and here in the United States.) Which means that in the environments that do give students an edge, the situation can’t exactly be explained by wealth.

All of the above raises some questions.

A) Do East Asian cram schools differ from other test prep courses in ways that make them more effective?

B) What does this mean about the value of cram courses overall?

I wrote a chapter of my upcoming book “The Loneliest Americans” on two cram schools in Flushing — Elite Academy, a Korean-run outfit that has been around for about three decades, and Kennedy Test Prep, a newer business that serves a diverse group of students. Both schools improve their students’ scores. There’s no revolutionary method these places employ, but they generally have a few features that make them effective: Their classes are fairly regular and spread out over a long period, they guarantee a higher score (if you don’t improve, you get your money back), and they’re used by a self-selected group of students who learn about the schools through word of mouth, usually within immigrant populations.

From my research, I believe what distinguishes these schools is sheer classroom time. Students in hagwons study not only for the SAT and ACT. If they live in New York City, there’s a decent chance they also took the Specialized High School Admission Test (the exam that determines admission to the city’s elite magnet schools) prep course in the eighth grade. If they struggled in any subject, it’s likely they signed up for a hagwon course to improve. If you’ve spent much of your academic life employing what experts call a shadow education, it stands to reason that you would benefit more from an SAT prep course than someone who is encountering an outside classroom for the first time.

First- and second-generation East Asian immigrants who live in ethnic enclaves aren’t exactly the wealthy suburbanites that are supposedly rigging the SAT game. The median annual household income in Flushing, for instance, was $15,000 less than the citywide median.

But if that’s not enough to upend conventional wisdom on test prep, consider: Black students are also more likely to use test prep than white students. Low-scoring Black students are more likely to have taken commercial test prep than low-scoring white students. High-scoring Black students are less likely to use commercial test prep than their high-scoring white counterparts but are more likely to use public test resources, buy prep books and study on their own. These studies have been around for years, align with polling that shows Black parents value a college education more than white parents and puncture cultural myths like “If everyone cared as much about education, inequalities would disappear.”

It would be much easier for progressives if test prep benefited only wealthy white families that wanted to buy their kids a 200-point boost. But most of that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny: Test prep doesn’t help only white kids, and it doesn’t give anyone 200 extra points. If anything, test prep seems to be a way that middle-class and poor Black students and the children of recent East Asian immigrants can gain an advantage over white students, not the other way around. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the SAT doesn’t reflect class inequalities — every part of the American education system does — but test prep, which is usually tagged as the culprit, seems relatively innocent.

If you’ve spent any time in an immigrant community, all this should be common sense; for minorities who might not have the capital or the connections to do all the things that develop your holistic profile — whether it’s building water systems in a developing country or inventing some widget that battles climate change — test prep is the quickest and most accessible way to boost their applications. The students who have the least access to the sorts of activities that would make you interesting to admissions committees are often the same ones who spend their weekends at test prep.

Given that the gap between Asian and white students’ SAT scores continues to grow (100 points, as of 2018), it’s worth also asking who really benefits from dropping the SAT and ACT. Is it really underrepresented minorities? Or is it white students who have to compete with high-scoring Asian students?

The conventional thinking on test prep is almost entirely backward, unless, of course, the aim is to limit the number of Asian students on your campus.

In his book on elite colleges, “The Price of Admission,” Daniel Golden writes about a time when Berkeley and U.C.L.A. “considered replacing race-based affirmative action” — banned by Prop 209, an anti-affirmative-action law that passed in 1996 and was reaffirmed in 2020 — “with a preference for low-income applicants.” The idea was quickly shut down, however, when officials “realized that it would mostly elevate Asian Americans.” He continues:

“We found that using poverty yields a lot of poor white kids and poor Asian kids,” said former Latino legislative leader Marco Firebaugh. Socioeconomic diversity was a “pie-in-the-sky solution,” Robert Laird, who was then Berkeley’s admissions director, told me. “That was never going to work in California.”

This brings up the most trenchant yet mostly unvoiced question in college admissions at elite schools: Who is all this “diversity” for? I’ll be answering that question in the next part of this series, but for now, I’d like to point out the irony here. The prevailing logic behind eliminating the SAT is that it gives wealthy kids an unfair edge. But when presented with an opportunity to actually help lower-income applicants, the U.C. system bailed when it realized it wasn’t helping the “right” poor families.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang) writes for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Loneliest Americans.”

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